You can learn so much without feeling like you’re learning at all. As I described my research at Barnard’s summer research poster presentation session, I realized just how much knowledge I had gained from my experience in the Callahan lab. My language had become technical and specialized. I had to consciously explain the words that I used and be sure to use more general language. Without actively studying, I could explain t-DNA insertion knockout mutations, how robustness and variability both affect an organism’s fitness, and the life cycle of the Arabidopsis thaliana. I learned all of this through reading papers for weekly lab meetings and the everyday discussions of the lab. While I understand the importance of some textbook learning, the value of learning through practice cannot be understated. Along with understanding the information, I inadvertently understood the importance of the information. After all, the only reason I knew how variability relates to evolution and agriculture was because it was immediately relevant to the work I was doing.
I can definitely say that my understanding of science gained a new dimension as the result of my summer research. There were a few instances when I was genuinely thrilled that real-life science lined up with what I had studied. Even though I believed the textbooks, it somehow feels different when a mutated gene actually has the predicted effect on a plant’s phenotype. In designing my individual research project, I ran analyses of previous data, interpreted the results, and chose mutant seeds to regrow as part of my experiment on phenotypic variability. I was actually using the scientific method. As I continue the project, I will collect and analyze my results to see if the mutants I selected continue to reflect unusual variability. And the process will continue.
Beyond the thrill of witnessing the reality of prior scientific knowledge, I also felt a thrill associated with knowing that I was playing a part in the creation of wholly new knowledge. Nobody knows what the result or implications of my research will be. We have hypotheses rooted in the literature and prior experiments, but no one really knows. In my opinion that is the most profound difference between practicing and studying science—embracing the unknown. In class, everything we study has concrete answers. If we don’t understand something, we should read the textbook, study more, or go to office hours. In a laboratory setting, scientists must ask questions without known answers. That is the key to research. It’s always a little bit uncomfortable designing a methodology to find unknown results, but it’s also invigorating. I hope to continue in research, asking bigger and better questions, for much longer in my scientific career.
In the last few weeks at lab, I worked with another undergraduate student to create a poster and abstract summarizing our work over the summer. Because we will both be continuing our project next semester and have not yet collected our results, the poster provided background for our research and outlined our experimental methods. What really made the difference in my enthusiasm for the research was a sense of ownership over the project. Though my project takes place as part of the larger objectives of the lab, I feel a sense of individual responsibility for its outcomes. Most important in cultivating that accountability was the fact that my mentors allowed me to make my own mistakes (although no mistake that couldn’t be fixed). I laid out the experiment, which I could then tweak with the professor or lab technician. I ran my own analyses and created my own graphs in R even though the lab technician could have done them in a quarter of time it took me. Though I’m sure it had to be frustrating and sometimes stressful for them, I really appreciate the responsibility that the professor and lab technician gave me. It’s a lesson that I’ll remember when I have to mentor or teach in the future.
I expect that my participation in a science-oriented community will affect me far more than the results of any of my experiments, this summer. The environment in the Callahan lab is more supportive, intellectual, humorous, and easygoing than I could have imagined. We tell stories about our weekends, discuss recent scientific findings, bemoan the health of our plants, and sing Beyoncé. We go on trips for ice cream or to see a blooming corpse flower at the New York Botanical Gardens. Every morning, I wake up looking forward to a day at the lab. The, sometimes, tedious nature of lab work (see photo of harvesting) is alleviated by the company. We spent about an hour discussing the distinction between ghosts and spirits (the two are unquestionably different, but the exact differentiation was subject to some debate). What makes the lab community so special and different from my other groups of friends and collaborators is our shared love and participation in science.
In lab, science isn’t a subject that is hated for its difficulty or forced into unenthusiastic class discussions. Instead, everyone shares a genuine love of science that passively pervades lab culture. In addition to our regular conversations about why our plants behave in the ways they do, we embrace the entire landscape of plant humor, read science books on weekends, and gather around the computer to read about President Obama’s paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association. When we began to run statistical analyses of our data and create graphs, the lab work became a crash course in using R (a statistics and graphics software). R is based on manipulating and writing programming code, something with which I had absolutely no experience. There is nowhere I would rather learn than in the Callahan lab. After a brief introduction, we learned mostly through trial and error. It was mostly silent in the lab, as people typed furiously in an attempt to avoid the red error messages. When we were finally able to work the software - anything from changing the colors of a graph to creating new lists of data based on statistical tests - the support in the room was overwhelming. Despite the fact that several of the new lab members had little experience in computer science, no one was too intimidated to embrace the challenge. Being in the presence of people, whose enjoyment of science is constantly and unintentionally on display, is really encouraging for an aspiring scientist.
Finally, as a Barnard student, I would like to praise the feminist: “Women in STEM” attitudes of the lab. When I started looking for labs to join this summer, I knew that I wanted a female scientific mentor. I know that being a woman working in science is still very different from being a man working in science. I wanted to be around women, who were thinking about the issues, and have a mentor, who had experienced them. I wasn’t disappointed. Feminism makes its appearance in the mostly-female lab in unplanned and frequently subtle, yet powerful, ways. Hope Jahren’s recent book Lab Girl about her work as a botanist, is a lab theme. “That’s so Lab Girl” is proclaimed in reference to everything from grant applications to an especially profound observation about plant life. Themes of women in science are brought up regularly in casual conversations like Andy Weir’s portrayal of women in The Martian and the first woman to circumnavigate the world (A botanist dressed as a man!). As with many of my experiences at Barnard, I feel inspired by my participation in this community of empowered female students and scientists.
When I was child, “scientist” was the response I gave to the adults, who poll small children on career ambitions. Being a scientist meant playing with dirt and colored fluid, all day, before emerging with an Einstein-esque hair-do to proclaim facts nobody, not even teachers, knew. As I grew up, my image of a scientist became more nuanced and, well, scientific, but the idea of working in the sciences lingered in my mind. Science was the creation of wholly new knowledge explaining life, the universe, and everything else. After tasting it in my science classes, I knew I wanted more. This summer, I took a position in Professor Callahan’s plant genomics lab, ready to embark on my own Mendelian quest.
Professor Callahan’s lab is involved in the Undergraduate Phenotyping of Arabidopsis Knockouts (UnPAK) project, a collaboration between schools across the country studying genomics in the Arabidopsis thaliana plant. The Arabidopsis is a small flowering plant generally considered to be the botany equivalent of the fruit fly in genetic research. UnPAK uses a set of mutant “knockout” plants in which a single gene is disrupted and can no longer be expressed due to a T-DNA insertion. One research goal of the project is to investigate how often and which mutations result in an observable phenotypic change in fitness-related traits. The genetic basis behind how and when mutations affect fitness is not well-known and plays a key role in understanding evolution.
We have also run analyses on our UnPAK data testing the effect of differing environmental conditions on phenotypic expression. As a mean to control for unavoidable environmental differences between repeated experiments, and even between trays of plants in the same experiment, UnPAK uses a group of non-mutant plants called phytometers. This plants are from eleven different lineages, displaying a wide range of traits. For example, one phytometer plant might always be relatively short, while another is tall. By planting these phytometers amidst the mutants in each experiment, the phytometers are exposed to the same environmental variation. The mutants in each experiment are compared the phytometers when analyzing the data, in order to account for how the environment might have affected the mutant phenotype.
Due to the number of mutations and replications that must be conducted, in order to obtain sufficient data to trace genomic patterns, experiments are conducted at many different schools; the results are compiled into an UnPAK database. My additional project, this summer, involves analyzing the data amassed over several years of UnPAK experiments and looking for mutations that seem to promote increased variability for a trait. Plants with such a mutation (for example, promoting variability in plant height) would display a wide range of heights, despite having the same genotype. Previous analyses have identified several possible mutations. This summer, I will be conducting further analyses and performing additional experiments with these especially variable mutants. Since variation is the foundation on which evolution acts, increased variability could be evolutionary advantageous in some environments.
The hands-on nature of lab work: physically planting and harvesting mutant seeds, collecting tissue for genotype analysis, and measuring traits gives me a new perspective on the genetic theories that I’ve learned in class. As we observe a particularly unusual phenotype, make hypotheses, and analyze our data, my PI refers to concepts in genetics and biotechnology that I had previously understood only abstractly. There’s nothing that compares to watching biological concepts formerly taken at face value prove themselves before your very eyes. It’s really quite beautiful.